Monday, 22 December 2008

John Logie Baird / Aeolian Harp

My Scottish grandfather liked gadgets. Around 1935 he built a television set to pick up Baird's daily 10.00 - 10.30 am test transmissions from Alexandra Palace. It was only supposed to be possible to pick these up within 80 miles of London, and my grandfather's success in picking them up in Ayrshire interested Baird enough for him to visit and discuss it. The set comprised an aluminium disc with tiny square holes around the edge, each a tad nearer the centre than its predecessor. In one revolution of the disc the holes scanned the width of a (selenium?) cell which could vary in brightness very rapidly. In front of the disc was a magnifying glass through which the pictures could be viewed.

At five to ten a picture of a five bar gate was transmitted, for tuning. The spinning disc was mounted on an electric motor with a variable speed control, and at the correct RPM the gate would appear - usually in two pieces until it was fine-tuned.

Hung above a door in the hall of my grandfather's house, amongst the weapons and oars (Uncle Alastair was a Boat Race and Olympic oarsman), was another device that appealed to him; an Aeolian Harp.

Aeolian harps were popular in Georgian times. They were placed in open sash-windows, where the wind could play over them. For over seventy years this one was strung cosmetically with silk fly-fishing line because my grandfather feared that any tensioning of the strings would place too much strain on the supporting posts.

When it was eventually passed to me I noticed two holes in the carved, porpoise-shaped posts, as if something was missing. These allowed me to rig up a spring-loaded copper bar to compensate for any strain, without having to physically adapt the instrument. After some research (there are several schools of thought about how to tune aeolian harps) I strung it with twenty guitar 'E' strings, all tuned to the same pitch. We opened the front and back doors and held the thing in the ensuing draught with a microphone nearby. And, hauntingly, perhaps for the first time in 170 years, the harp began to play. It felt as if we were hearing a recording made around the time of Waterloo, an echo from the past.

I found the tape this week and digitised it. You should be able to hear a bit by clicking the title of this post.


  1. Sent shivers down my spine.

    I bet if your grandad was around today he'd have been DIY HD ready years ago...

  2. That is absolutely astonishing! certainly butt-clenchingly haunty music for sure. How wonderful to have something like that in your family tho'. My dad left me his autoharp which I must try and play one day....

  3. So marvelous; both your Kupuna's skill and your successful attempt to help this ancient voice sing again. Wow, just wow!
    So THAT'S what an Aeolian harp is! Just fascinating. Thank you for sharing this with us all. aloha-

  4. how weird was that? Sounded like something Cage would produce.It must be very odd to be in the room with it happening - you'd think spirits would be dancing around.

  5. What a fabulous family you are part of !!!

  6. Definately ghosts there! And your ancestor and mine may have met! Interesting!

  7. Steve - D'you know, I think you're right!

    Amanda - You must have a go with the autoharp! One of my favourite toys was a zither, which I think is a simple version of the same thing. It came with paper sheets with tunes marked out, which slipped under the metal strings, so that one could play straight off.

    Cloudia - I wonder if it would play different music in a warm, Pacific breeze?

    Fancy - It is a strange, slightly magical experience. I imagine it was made about the time Coleridge was writing Kubla Khan and John Clare was starting out. No wonder they were such melancholics, with that sound echoing around houses!

    Pebbles - I wish some of it had rubbed off on me!

    Justme - Are you related to JLB then? (And you not a great televisionm watcher!) Tell us more.

  8. Wow-can't you video the harp and put it on your blog? What a lovely instrument. My grandad made a telly too-though I know nothing technical about it. It showed four tiny pictures rather than one big one and I think the first thing they watched on it was Muffin the mule.
    Hope you all have a lovely Christmas!
    Sarah x

  9. I had no idea that was what an aeolian harp was. Amazing.

    You have very fascinating ancestors too. None of mine has managed to do anything particularly exciting - or not that I know of.

    Have a lovely Christmas.

  10. Wow and wow.

    What a brilliant and interesting story and what a spooky recording.

    You must have been very proud of your grandfather.

  11. Sarah - I may progress to video, although if you knew the struggle I had getting an audio link to work, you'd forgive me. Go our grandfathers! (Why aren't we geniuses?)

    RB - I bet your ancestors did a host of interesting things. Aren't we pretty well all descendent from Charlemagne the Great, for a start?

    Laura - I hope you had a relaxing Christmas after the exhausting lead up to it. And yes, my grandfather commanded great respect in his day (his children called him 'The Boss'), and certainly earned mine.

    Dotterel - Thank you.

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